I stumbled upon the endgame that we will analyze today when watching the games from the round robin tournament in Kharkov, Ukraine, which ended not long ago. I didn’t see the whole game but only up to this position:
Then I saved the game into my database, so I could play out this position with a sparring partner and did not watch the moves that followed, committed to not having an unfair advantage. About 5 years ago I played GM Kovchan, who played the white side in this game. We transposed into an endgame which opening books evaluated as equal (it was a Taimanov Sicilian where black gives up Bb4 for the knight on c3 but gets to push d5 and trade queens). However, soon my position deteriorated and with quiet moves Kovchan lead the game to victory. After the game he stated that white has a good advantage in the starting position and that I should always check the book evaluations and not blindly trust them. Having this personal experience and respect for Kovchan’s endgame skills made his game an excellent candidate for this article.
Let us first evaluate the position. White is down a pawn but has a bishop for a knight and an active king. The knight is not worse than the bishop because the position is fairly closed and the knight has good squares available: c6 and d5. Already we have dug up an idea for white: opening up the game so the bishop will be a significant player. Black’s main advantage is the potentially passed b- pawn, thus white must be careful of letting it advance freely. Black’s Rg8 is out of play so far and the pawns b7, e6 and h7 might be weak. White’s pawn d4 is located on a semi-open file, so black could use it as a target for attack. Letting the knight come to d5 is not favorable for white as it will have too much control, thus white probably must play Bxe7 when the knight jumps there.
Proceeding to the first game… Black played safely and at no point was in any danger. I was also playing alright, and had fair chances of a draw, but at some point spoiled the game with a horrible blunder: placing a rook on a passive square. The game is a good illustration of the way events can develop when the game goes to a rook endgame.
The important ideas from the game are:
- Rg7-Rd7 is an effective way to activate the passive rook on g8;
- Trading knight for bishop lost some of black’s advantage, if there are ways to improve position before trading then black should do that.
- D4 and b7 became main targets for attack in the rook endgame;
- The e5-break is the main strategic idea for black because then he gets the d-file domination and can push the white king away from the centre as well as gather the weak pawn on a3;
- White’s biggest mistake was to place the rook on b1 rather than on c6- where it would be very active.
The game uncovered the main plans for both sides. It was apparent that white should do something about the b-pawn before black pushes it to b5. The break e5 looks inevitable, so white should not try to prevent it but rather prepare for the positions that arise after the break.
With these thoughts in mind we started our second game of the match. I played black and opened the position with the e5 break too soon. Remember, that white has a bishop and black has a knight, thus opening the position should benefit the side with the bishop. You can see it clearly in the game how much stronger the bishop was than the black knight and it happened only after the e5-break. Black lost one of the supporting squares for the knight, d5, and also transferred the knight from the solid position on c6. The game illustrates the advantages that the tandem rook + bishop have over the tandem rook + knight.
The following ideas are worth reviewing:
- The a4 move was a success as it limited black’s pawns' mobility on the queenside;
- The e5 break was a total disaster as it opened the game for the white bishop and also opened the game when the rook g8 was not participating in the game;
- The king activity was one of the main defining components of the position;
- Don’t play chess like me.
Having played and analyzed this position I was eager to see what actually happened in the game. It would have been a disappointment to see a premature draw for example agreed in this position. However, I was pleasantly surprised and can definitely say that my high expectations for Kovchan’s endgame skills were fulfilled when seeing his masterly play in this endgame. Fair enough, that black did not play the best moves and did not have a clear plan but was reacting to white’s play. The rating difference also favors white but nevertheless, I hope you enjoy the endgame as much as I did.
The last set of ideas:
- White found a way to counter black’s e5 with… the h3- g4 plan. After g4 black is faced with a choice of either letting white have a passed pawn on d4 after g:f5 or giving white an open h-file after f:g4.
- White tied down black pieces to the defense of the weak b7 pawn with the a4 – Rb1 moves (previously trading a pair of rooks to secure the white king in the centre) and only then broke the position open with the f3 move, continuing the theme of trading off the pawns to increase drawing chances.
The next week we will look at an endgame that I played last week in a local league. Bruce Leverett played as white and he was up a pawn, but agreed to a draw in few moves. Can you find some winning chances for white?